As the level of rancor and invective rises in media debates over the battles for the Supreme Court and White House, I have been looking for signs of hope. Any sign that says we are not so tribally divided that we will destroy our democracy before finding common ground will do.
I wasn’t having any luck earlier in the week as prime-time hosts at Fox News shifted into high attack mode on Democrats, and social media was filled with vicious back and forth posts about the Republican-controlled Senate’s announced plan to vote before the presidential election Nov. 3 on a replacement for the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The more media I consumed, the gloomier I got.
But then came a call from a CNN publicist telling me about a documentary about the late Rep. John Lewis premiering Sunday. The best part was they were making available to me some of the outtakes from an interview for the film with the late Rep. Elijah Cummings. The words of my former congressman turned out to be exactly the kind of thing I had been yearning to hear.
In answer to a question about the Civil Rights Movement and its relevance to today, Cummings began by talking about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and love.
“Martin Luther King talked a lot about love,” Cummings said, “love seeming to be the cure for so many things. When I first heard it, I thought, you know, it sounds a little corny or naive. But the more I think about it, that’s what it’s all about. The biggest problem is that we have allowed ourselves to become so divided. I don’t care what the relationship is, you’ve got to have trust. But you’ve got to have something else. You’ve got to have civility. If I’m calling you all kinds of names, we will never get anything done.”
I paused the video to think about those words in connection with the column I wrote Tuesday quoting Jesse Watters, a Fox News show host who called on Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the other Republican senators during his Saturday night show to be ruthless in getting a Trump nominee to the high court confirmed.
“Why give an inch to Democrats?" Mr. Watters said. "This is raw politics with our future at stake … The Democrats have no credibility here. Remember what they did to Kavanaugh? And they have been rioting all summer. We are dealing with bloodthirsty political killers on the left. Buck up and do your job.”
Democrats are “bloodthirsty political killers"? Is that what Cummings sounded like to you? This is not commentary or analysis. This isn’t even rabble rousing. It’s beyond that. This is speech that demonizes the opponent, incites conflict and horribly deepens the widening divide in American life.
“That’s one of the things I liked about John Lewis,” Cummings goes on to say in the interview outtakes CNN shared with me. "When you listen to his comments and his speeches, he’s always talking about unity … He always said, ‘A hundred years ago, none of us were here. And a hundred years from now, none of us will be on this earth.’ … If you look at life like that, you should ask, ‘What can I do for fellow man with the time that I have on this earth?’ Or my fellow woman. And I think that attitude is what will lead us to that more perfect union and a more perfect world.”
Cummings plays a prominent role in the outstanding CNN documentary on Lewis titled “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday. His voice is one of the first viewers will hear assessing the legacy of Lewis. Beyond what’s in the film, more outtakes of the interview with Cummings can be seen at CNN.com starting Thursday.
The film is not only deeply researched and richly textured through archival images; director Dawn Porter skillfully connects the history Lewis and other civil rights pioneers made to the situation we find ourselves in today. The film moves in one early segment from archival footage of Lewis and other voting-rights marchers being beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to the long lines of citizens meeting with unforgivable delays in trying to vote in the 2018 midterm elections.
Sadly, voter suppression and injustice live on. But so, too, do the inspirational words of those who fought against them for a more perfect union.
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David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.